Go Deeper

TONIGHT: Les Rivera’s Platypus Steps Out At Live Arts Brewery’s Second Thursdays

Posted June 10th, 2010

“You’re Puerto Rican? I thought you were black!”

The final line of the monologue from Les Rivera‘s Platypus, which he took from a real-life conversation with a friend of four years, illustrates the questions of racial identity, identification, and perception that color his first foray into original choreography.

The first public performance of Platypus will be at the Live Arts Brewery Second Thursdays event tonight, with Jaamil Kosoko and Daniele Strawmyre also previewing new work (all three are appearing in 8 at this fall’s Live Arts Festival. But yesterday at the University of the Arts, I saw a sneak peek that he gave for a handful of dancers and choreographers, and me.

“For the past four days I’ve been just: ‘I’ve gotta present my life to these people,'” Les says. “To me, that’s a story from A to B.”

Storytelling has always been a key part of Les’s performance career. He traces much of it back to his time with the hip hop dance group Rennie Harris Puremovement, of which he was an original member.

“[Founder] Rennie [Harris] was bringing stories to the stage that people were not [otherwise] receiving, in ways that were not just simplified.”

In the first section of Platypus, as I saw it performed yesterday, Les danced over a monologue his thoughts about racial identity and complexity, and explores his movement history: tae kwon do, gymnastics, and diving. In the second, he moves into salsa dancing, a passion of his mother’s. The monologue continues, ending with that line: “You’re Puerto Rican? I thought you were black!”

After the jump: b-boying to Elvis, and what’s wrong with modern dance.

Then, there’s a tight, pointed transition. Les dons throwback Reebok high-tops, and b-boys aggressively, and confrontationally, to Elvis’s “Hound Dog.” By the end, he’s exhausted. Panting, he picks up a guitar and moves in close, and sings a stunning, slow, balladic version of “Hound Dog” in Spanish.

“When I sing in Spanish,” says Les, “I feel I can express myself in the most graceful, emotive way—but I’m not going to walk down the street singing songs.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Spanish is Les’s first language. But he’s often perceived as an African American, which has prompted much consideration of racial identity and engagement.

“These [racial and identity issues] are still valid issues. I can see it in some people’s eyes when I walk down the street. You don’t even know what a softie I am! Just when I think everything is cool—’I didn’t know you were Puerto Rican,’ or I get a ghetto look on the street.”

Platypus is the first dance piece that Les has prepared for public consumption. He’s been playing with the ideas behind it since I spoke with him a year ago, and he tried other artistic approaches before—he’s also a filmmaker and musician—but wasn’t satisfied with the results.

“When I was trying on film, it was just dialogue back and forth. Since I started doing music later, I could talk about the subject, but it was still vague. After this showing, I’m understanding the balance of people understanding where I’m coming from and pure entertainment and pure performance.”

Les finds some contemporary dance off-putting, and insists that his own work be accessible and engaging.

“In dance,” Les says, “I see inventing a new way to move—that’s not enough. Maybe you want to get more than just a dance audience, to show us something we’ve been missing and [how] we finally did it.

“When I’m getting feedback, I’m thinking about that. I’m not trying to dumb down the performance. I believe in subtleties and giving a lot of different meanings—as artists, we have to communicate something with the audience. If you’re being vague, you’re losing.”

Still, Les says, Platypus is likely to change between last night and tonight, and will expand into a much longer suite as it develops.

“I want to make a piece for a regular audience—they want to go out on Friday or Saturday night to have a good time on the surface, but they want to feel something.”

Tonight, 7:00 pm, at The Live Arts Studio. 919 N. 5th St., Northern Liberties. Free!

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by Nicholas Gilewicz.